The Cost of Doing Nothing
There is a clip from yesterday’s Daily Show circulating around in which Jon Stewart, devoid of his usual joking manner, laments the Charleston church massacre while dreading that once again, faced with a mass murder, America isn’t going to do anything.
And that’s probably right. But the problem isn’t so much that we refuse to do anything; it’s more that we can’t seem to figure out what to do. We don’t do anything about it — whether by “it” you mean gun violence or racism — because we don’t really have a sense of what the thing to do should be. We may lack the will to enact a real, solid political agenda, but more importantly, we can’t really agree on what that agenda should consist of.
I’ve been a part of this problem in the past myself, of course, because it’s dreadfully difficult to pin down a response to these terrible crimes that makes sense. The difference between the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the Emanuel AME Church shooting is that the former took place at a time when the African-American community and its allies were in the middle of an organized political struggle with very specific goals and tactics for achieving those goals. They were able to tie the horrendous violence visited on their children to those goals, and while civil rights legislation didn’t end racism, or violence against blacks, or terrorism, it elevated millions of people out of legalized oppression and improved the civil and social life of the country immensely.
At the present moment, however, there is no similar organized goal, no animating passion, to which the revulsion at Dylann Roof’s atrocity can be attached. We might have had a unique opportunity to turn a horrific crime into true positive change, but we had no single unifying agenda to which it could be linked. Instead, we have slogans and enthusiasms and attitudes; we have ‘teaching moments’ and ‘national discussions’ instead of actual political goals or legislative slates. We say “BLACK LIVES MATTER”, because “BLACK LIVES MATTER” is easily said; what is hard is making black lives matter. We preach because preaching is much less difficult than practice. We hold conversations because talking isn’t as hard as acting, and, more importantly, embodying in law the principles we claim to hold.
And I know why we do that. It’s because a solution — any solution — seems impossible to conceive of, let alone legislate. Gun control may not make a difference; it may be too little too late. Racism cannot be driven out of the human heart; hatred cannot be made illegal; madness cannot be cured through litigation. Any single approach we take towards the problem (or, more truthfully, the morass of intertwined problems) that led to the bloodbath in Charleston will probably seem insufficient, and often, that is enough to make us settle for inaction; I have argued, in this very space, that no gun control is likely to end the problem of spree killing and that, therefore, it might do to not bother.
But, goddamnit, it will not do. We have to do something. Martin Luther King, who was unusually clear-eyed about not only his goals but his means of achieving them — who had an idealist’s dreams fused inseparably to a pragmatist’s vision — understood this perfectly; he knew that legislation and political change weren’t ever going to eliminate racism, but he also knew that they were the paramount practical means to reduce racism’s harm. In a speech to Western Michigan University students and faculty, he called it a “half-truth” that morals cannot be legislated and that only education and religion can change a man’s heart. But if morality could not be legislated, he continued, behavior could still be regulated. “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me,” he explained, “but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
It was for that reason that he and all of those involved in the civil rights movement fought so fiercely and clearly for civil rights in the form of specific and particular judicial and legislative changes: equal housing, fair voting, an end to segregation and legalized discrimination, affirmative action, banning lynch law. What is the agenda we should push? It doesn’t even really matter. Shall we push for some reasonable and sane degree of gun control, or more extreme measures of prohibition? Should we focus on small and practical reforms like more robust hate crime laws, or grand, sweeping changes like reparations? Should we focus on beating back the rising tide of new legislation designed to restrict hard-won voting rights, or set our sights lower and finally, blessedly ban the flying of the Confederate Flag, that putrid symbol of slavery and disgrace? Should we reform the drug laws, which have proven such a plague on the black community, or should we dare to take the bravest stand of all against violence and outlaw the death penalty once and for all, even for the likes of Dylann Roof? It makes no difference, as long as we do something.
Our political system has disintegrated into a rich man’s game of pandering and triangulation, and neither our national nor our local leaders have seriously pushed, or even proposed, any of the legislation above, or anything else for that matter that would address in the letter of the law the brutal wounds of racism and violence that have made sights like the Emanuel AMA prayer group massacre depressingly and tediously common. They are unpopular, you see; they are politically risky, and politics is no longer about governing, it is merely about holding office. But nothing worthwhile, from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation to women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Act, has been widely popular or free of risk. What we need at the moment is courage: the courage of politicians and other prominent people to push forward, at whatever expense or personal cost, any one of these desperately needed reforms, and the courage of people like you and me to stop talking past each other and actually support those reforms.
It is worth noting that on the same broadcast I referred to above, Jon Stewart’s guest was Malala Yousafzai, one of my personal heroes. And whatever else can be said about this astonishingly brave young woman, who faced more danger and opposition to her goals than most of us can imagine, she did not give up; she did not shrug her shoulders at the inevitability of the problems she faced; she did not simply sit around with a group of her like-minded friends displaying the easy outward signs of loyalty or resistance. She did something, and she continues to do something. And while she has not made the Taliban go away, she has created opportunities and possibilities that make them seem like the aberrant, abhorrent creatures that they are. We have lost a thousand Malalas to violence and racism; let us not lose another before we follow her example and do something. There are times when any action is preferable to more endless rounds of hand-wringing and preaching to the choir; and this is surely one of them.